OECD report: Global literacy scores see ‘unprecedented’ decline

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News Team

A recent global education survey has shown a significant decrease in academic progress in many countries. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey, published on Tuesday, is the first study of its kind since the COVID-19 pandemic and revealed the historic setbacks suffered by students. The average international mathematics score fell by 15 points since the 2018 tests, the equivalent of three-quarters of a year of learning, reading fell by the equivalent of half a year, with only science scores remaining more or less the same. Twenty points is seen as equivalent to a year of learning.

PISA is carried out every three years by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and tests 15-year-old students’ knowledge in maths, reading and science across 81 countries and regions. The survey schedule was disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic and the overall results from 2022 reflected the changes since the previous tests in 2018 across both rich and poor nations, eliciting concern from officials. It was administered in 2022 to a sample of 15-year-olds in 37 OECD member countries plus 44 other partner nations. The OECD has been conducting the test since 2000.

In the United States, despite President Joe Biden’s investments in education, including $190bn in pandemic relief that the US Congress sent to schools, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said that the country’s maths scores remain “stubbornly low”. European countries also showed a particularly sharp decline. Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway and Poland were among countries that saw notably lower achievements in maths, the report showed. While in other countries, “the average 15-year-old in 2022 scored at the level expected of a 14-year-old in 2018,” the report said. Germany and France scored in the lower ranks among European countries, with German pupils performing worse than ever in reading, maths and science in what OECD education analyst Eric Charbonnier called a “worrying” decline.

Countries such as Germany, Iceland and the Netherlands saw drops of 25 points or more in maths scores. While some of the decline is likely due to school shutdowns and interruptions during COVID-19, “long-term issues in education systems are also to blame for the drop in performance,” the report said. A key factor is “the level of support pupils received from teachers and school staff”, according to Irene Hu. Charbonnier agreed that “countries have invested in education over the past 10 years, but maybe they didn’t invest efficiently, or sufficiently into the quality of teaching”. Andreas Schleicher, OECD education and skills director, highlighted that there are lessons to be taken from the report. “There are underlying structural factors and they are much more likely to be permanent features of our education systems that policymakers should really take seriously,” he said.

Asian students dominated the list with many outperforming their peers elsewhere in the world showing years worth of advancement. Singapore took the top ranking in the latest assessment, with the “results [suggesting] that, on average, Singaporean students are the equivalent of almost three to five years of schooling ahead of their peers,” the report said. Five other Asian education systems – in Macao, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea – came next in maths, and also scored near the top in reading and science.

For the first time, the survey also focused on the mental state of students, using nine aspects of their lives to measure their wellbeing, showing correlation between academic performance and anxiety. In the high-performing countries “many students reported a high fear of failure and limited engagement in extracurricular activities such as sports”. In lower-performing countries, students engaged more in physical and team activities, resulting in “lower levels of anxiety and a greater focus on sports”. The indicators included engagement with school, material and cultural wellbeing, openness to diversity and psychological wellbeing.

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